In the “Guidance on the Implementation of Plan S”, cOAlition S committed to “consider developing a potential framework for ‘transformative journals’ where the share of open access content is gradually increased, where subscription costs are offset by income from payments for publishing services (to avoid double payments), and where the journal has a clear commitment to transition to full open access in an agreed timeframe.” In late November, cOAlition S released a draft framework for transformative journals and began a consultation (open for comment until 9:00 CET on January 6, 2020).
The concept of “transformative journals” was initially proposed by Springer Nature in May 2019 in a response to the draft of the Plan S implementation guidelines. At the time, I expressed skepticism that the idea would find a receptive audience given the coaition’s position on hybrid journals. As such, I will admit that I was rather surprised to see that cOAlition S incorporated the notion of transformative journals into the final guidelines and signaled the possibility of re-thinking the acceptability of hybrid journals and expanding the conditions under which they would be considered Plan S compliant.
Defining the Transformative Journal
The draft framework puts forward a set of criteria by which a hybrid journal would be deemed a “transformative journal” including:
- Demonstrate an annual increase in the open access penetration rate of at least 8 percent points year-on-year.
- Commit to transition to full open access at the latest either when the open access penetration rate has passed 50% or by an agreed timeline and at the latest on the 31, December 2024.
- Make all open access content available in accordance with the Plan S requirements.
- Demonstrate transparent pricing, including a breakdown of prices based on the services it provides.
- Adopt mechanisms to avoid undue publication barriers, by offering waivers and discounts to authors aligned with Plan S Guidance.
Publishers of such transformative journals would also need to commit to a range of communication, reporting, and other business practices requirements.
How Transformative Journals Fit in Plan S Compliance
The Guidance on the Implementation of Plan S laid out three routes to Plan S compliance for cOAlition S funded authors:
- Authors publish in an open access journal or on an open access platform.
- Authors publish in a subscription journal and immediately upon publication, make either the final published version (Version of Record) or the Author’s Accepted Manuscript openly available in a repository.
- Authors publish open access in a hybrid journal under a transformative arrangement.
A recent report, however, investigated the degree to which authors will be able to find publication outlets that comply with the requirements for each of these routes and reported that, “there currently is limited compliance with the various Plan S requirements.” The report goes on to identify opportunities for expanded compliance and to document the variance in availability of compliant publication outlets across fields; however, the current state of limited journal compliance means cOAlition S funded authors will be constrained — in some fields very constrained — with respect to their choices of where to publish.
Lack of author choice will likely lessen author compliance, particularly if cOAlition S does not develop a robust author monitoring regime and concomitant consequences for noncompliance. As such, the coalition is facing the tension between enforcing stricter guidelines for journals, which keeps the number of compliant publication outlets smaller, and encouraging author compliance, which is encouraged by having a greater range of publication outlets for authors to pursue.
The draft framework for transformative journals reflects this tension. While on the one hand it expands the category of transformative arrangements beyond the transformative agreements option originally outlined to create the transparent journal arrangement, the draft criteria for transformative journals are tightly scoped. Though no formal analysis has been conducted, personally I cannot think of a single journal that would meet these criteria that is not already compliant for authors under another route. Nonetheless, when the transformative journal framework is finalized, it would create an option to aspire to for publishers who wish to offer a transformative route instead of, or in addition to, transformative agreements.
Publisher Responses Emerging
Though the deadline for response is still a few weeks away, publisher reaction to the draft framework is starting to emerge.
An initial statement from the STM Association stated that measuring progress is necessary but then raised questions related to timeline mandates, the specific metrics, and differences in funding across disciplines. STM also observed that the administrative costs of the required reporting will be burdensome, in particular to smaller and society publishers that do not have the needed supportive infrastructures for this reporting. The STM statement stops short of offering alternative or revised criteria.
In contrast, Springer Nature’s response to the framework, released today, articulates an alternative timeline and set of metrics as a counter to the cOAlition’s draft framework criteria. Specifically, Springer Nature proposes the following three specific criteria:
- Year-on-year growth of OA content at the same rate as the increase in global research supported by funders and institutions committed to funding Gold OA.
- Journals to be flipped when OA content reaches 90%.
- Progress to be reviewed in 2024, as per cOAlition S’s decision to review progress more widely, and commitments adapted accordingly then in light of progress to date.
Springer Nature’s response details, in particular, that cOAlition S cannot deliver 8% year-on-year growth in open access (OA) demand, especially as the coalition itself is losing market share of the global research article output:
EU/ERC and cOAlition S altogether account for under 7% of global research articles. This has barely increased in the year since cOAlition S launched, with funders joining in 2019 only accounting for a very small portion of published research. This equates to an annual growth rate of articles funded by cOAlition S of somewhere between 3-4%, which is well below the 6% growth rate expected this year for the research article market as a whole. Therefore, the rate of growth of EU/ERC and cOAlition S is not even adequate to keep pace with this total article growth rate. Given that the global share of cOAlition S funded research is declining in real terms, a transition which expects publishers to increase the share of OA articles in their journals by 8 percentage points p.a. is not sustainable.”
Springer Nature goes on to point out that transformative agreements will also be insufficient to drive 8% year-on-year growth. As such, Springer Nature proposes instead that a transformative journal would be required to show that it is meeting the demand for open access publishing. This is consistent not only with Springer Nature’s original concept of the transformative journal but also with overall publisher feedback to the Plan S draft principles, which defended hybrid journals as successfully fostering growth in open access publishing and meeting market demands.
As other publishers release their feedback to the draft framework (if they do), I expect we will see similar remarks about timeline, metrics, and demand.
How Will cOAlition S Respond?
With the consultation process still ongoing and Springer Nature’s response only recently released, understandably the response of the coalition is unknown. However, Johan Rooryck, open access champion for cOAlition S, did respond to my query with the statement that: “We appreciate the engagement of all members of the academic publishing community to the proposed framework, and will carefully consider all feedback. We hope for as many publishers as possible to engage with us. Our reaction to the Springer Nature open letter will be forthcoming.”
What does seem likely is that, just as cOAlition S responded to the feedback on the draft implementation guidelines in crafting the final version, the final transformative journals framework will be impacted by input from the community. Individuals and organizations are invited to give their feedback through this online form.